Brave, Beautiful, and Good Things

with Rainn Wilson

Sometimes we can fix our lives and sometimes can’t. So when self-help and self-care fall short, what do we need to turn instead? Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute of NBC’s The Office) says that what we need is a spiritual revolution. This conversation is rich and challenging and invites us all to think about the virtues we need to sustain a life and how we might cultivate these virtues not just for our own wellbeing but for that of the people around us. Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with bubble baths or the latest cold plunge trend. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy?




Rainn Wilson

Rainn Wilson is a three-time Emmy Award nominated actor, best known for the role of Dwight Schrute in NBC's The Office. He's acted in dozens of other films and TV shows such as (in no particular order): Six Feet Under, The Meg, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, Super, The Rocker, Star Trek Discovery, Utopia, Jerry and Marge Go Large, Almost Famous, Backstrom, Galaxy Quest, Blackbird as well as the upcoming CODE 3.He is the host of the new Peacock docu-series "Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss" in which he travels the world in search of happiness. Rainn is the co-founder of the digital media company SoulPancake which created thousands of pieces of content and over a billion video views, including viral hits like Kid President, My Last Days, and The Idiots Guide to Climate Change.Rainn co-wrote the New York Times bestselling SOULPANCAKE: Chew on Life's Big Questions as well as his comedic memoir, The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith and Idiocy. His newest book is entitled Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution.

Show Notes

This was a live conversation recorded in person with our friends at the Fetzer Institute.

Learn more about the Fetzer Institute.

Followers of the Baha’i faith believe that God has sent divine Educators to humanity that will help with the advancement of humanity.

Everyone needs basic survival skills: learn how to get out of quicksand.

Economist Ann Case and Nobel Prize Angus Deacon wrote Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.  You can also learn more about The Role of Alcohol, Drugs,, and Deaths of Despair in the U.S.’s Falling Life Expectancy.

Learn more about how to define a “mental health problem,” and what is being done to address  the Mental Health Crisis that is affecting young people today. 

Dr. Lisa Damour (New York Times bestselling author of The Emotional Lives of Teenagers) has dedicated her life to unraveling the intricacies of adolescence and offering practical, heartfelt advice. Kate had a very insightful conversation with Lisa in Understanding Today’s Teenagers.

The Happiness Baseline means that, while our level of happiness varies with events that happen in our lives, we ultimately adapt to these events and return to a baseline level.

Learn more about Dungeons and Dragons.

Dr. Varun Soni now serves as the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California.

Martin Seligman is a pioneer of Positive Psychology (the term itself was coined by Abraham Maslow), not simply because he has a systematic theory about why happy people are happy, but because he uses the scientific method to explore happiness.

Discussion Questions

  1. Kate and Rainn talk about the individualism of self-help versus the power of connection. “It’s by getting out of oneself, actually, that we find greater well-being.” When have you been able to gain perspective by getting out of yourself through service and connection?
  1. Rainn says that “in the creative impulse, we are emulating a divine spark.” Where do you see the connection between God and creativity in your own life? What does it mean to worship God as a creator and acknowledge our own creative power?
  1. To face the “disease of despair,” Kate invites into “one small, faithful act of hope at a time.” Where have you observed these small faith acts of hope? What small acts of hope can you take in the days ahead?


Kate Bowler: This is Everything Happens and I’m Kate Bowler. If you’ve been around for a bit, you know that I have some strong feelings about the $12 billion self-help and wellness industry that has sold us on the idea that our lives are entirely figure out-a-ble. Just follow this five-step plan or drink this barely tolerable green juice or protein powder. Like what is going on with things that are made of dust that we’re supposed to eat? Or, you know, read the latest cheap paperback that you found in the airport spinner rack. The truth is, sometimes we can fix our lives and sometimes we can’t. But when self-help and self-care fall short, what do we need to turn to instead? To fill us up, to draw us toward one another, to encourage us that we are all, you know, human again today. My guest today says that we need a spiritual revolution, which is not exactly what you would imagine from the guy from The Office, but he has so many opinions. And I love his brain on exactly this. Rainn Wilson, of course, needs no introduction. But just in case you’ve lived under a rock or in like a very shaded area somewhere, or in a spaceship stationed on a planet far away, let me tell you about him. Wayne is a three-time Emmy-nominated actor best known for his role as Dwight Schrute on NBC’s The Office, but he’s just also such an artistic, soulful, creative person and the co-founder of the media company Soul Pancake and the author of the book Soul Boom. I had the very special privilege of getting to talk with him in front of a live audience with our friends at the Fetzer Institute, and it was a conversation that was very challenging and rich, and was there to really just help me, and I hope, help you think about the virtues we need to sustain a life. How we might cultivate these virtues, not just kind of for our own well-being, but for those of us integrated into the lives of the people around us. And, spoiler alert, that version of self-care will have very little to do with bubble baths or the latest cold plunge enthusiasm, even if it would be so nice if it were that easy. Before I talk with Rainn, we’re going to take a quick break though, to tell you about some of our sponsors. Don’t go anywhere. We’ll be right back with the hilarious and thoughtful Rainn Wilson.

Kate: Oh, hey hey hey.

Rainn Wilson: Oh, hi!

Kate: I know. And this is how we always meet. Fancy meeting you here, again.

Rainn: Yes. Yeah. Welcome to Kalamazoo.

Kate: Thank you. Thank you. It feels, because I’ve been listening to you and reading you and just wandering around my neighborhood, listening to your audiobooks, having my spiritual thoughts and hopes and dreams. It feels, like I… you’re going to have to forgive the amount that I feel like I know you, so thank you. Also I have the overwhelming desire to get comfortable because I have 200 questions, if that’s alright.

Rainn: Okay. Let’s do it.

Kate: That’s great. I think we’re maybe, ish, ten years apart. And my parents were also hippies. But your parents were hippies before hippies were hippies.

Rainn: Yeah, pre, pre-hippie. Proto hippie. Yeah.

Kate: Tell me a bit about their kind of early questing selves.

Rainn: Yeah, they, essentially, my parents were farm kids who found themselves in Seattle in the mid-60s. And they were a little bit more in the, in the beatnik, line of things. So my dad, painted, murals, and he wanted to be Mark Tobey, the, kind of abstract expressionist painter. They lived in a houseboat, in Seattle and Lake Union. And my mom did experimental theater where she, in one play, painted her naked torso blue and ran, ran around in the audience, yeah.

Kate: Which is what we’re here to do today.

Rainn: Today. Yes. It’s a first-ever for Fetzer.

Kate: Cameras out, everyone.

Rainn: We’re all going to participate.

Kate: Bring them down. That’s awesome. I loved your… like, it was like all the choices. The houseboat choice. The art choice. Your dad’s real, like, sci-fi side. Tell me some of the sample titles of his works.

Rainn: Yeah so my dad, on the side, it’s a it’s a very strange, upbringing because my dad was very working class, blue collar. He spent his whole life either as, like, a line cook or a school teacher, but mostly like managing a sewer construction company. Yeah. And on the side, painting abstract oil paintings, listening to opera, singing at the top of his lungs. And as if that wasn’t enough, he had a secret hobby of writing science fiction novels. So he wrote, gosh, 10 or 12 sci-fi novels. He only got one of them published, Tentacles of Dawn. Major books. 1976. We got a check for $500 for that book, and, there’s a there’s a picture, I think, in The Bassoon King of us holding that up. That was more money than our family had had. It was like, oh my gosh, we can buy shoes! Because we were we were pretty poor in Seattle. I grew up, drinking powdered milk instead of milk because it was cheaper and getting my clothes from the Salvation Army. And, but my dad had all kinds of titles of science fiction books. I can’t remember, you probably remember some of them, there was The Ghosts of E, Clarissa of Doom. What else? What else? There’s so many. It’s it’s just like galactic zombies and, you know, anything, you can imagine.

Kate: I love the worldbuilding-ness of it. The like, like remaking the world through total imaginary post-apocalyptic or pre-apocalyptic gorgeous madness. Like, I imagine on a typewriter, just like…

Rainn: He was on a typewriter. And that’s, that’s nuts. Think about writing, you know, Clarissa of Doom on a typewriter. You know, it’s hard enough to write Clarissa and Doom in some kind of word processor. And it’s in it’s it’s interesting with my dad because, and, I’m gonna I’m gonna jump ahead to something, a little more, profound, but when I think back on my dad, like, he loved the creative process, he just loved being creative. I think he was told his whole life, he had a very traumatic childhood, his mom died under just horrific circumstances, his dad was the worst dad known to humanity, and he just… So it was all about, like at work, he would secretly type science fiction novels when he wasn’t sending sewer construction trucks out to the, you know, the leafy, clogged drains of Seattle. And, and then he’d come home and he’d paint these abstract oils. But for him, it was the process of creation that he didn’t really he would he would have loved to have been discovered, but he. You wanted to do zero of the work of like trying to take his books out and his paintings out. And I used to say to him when I was like 11 years old, Dad, you got all these paintings. Why don’t you take them out to the galleries or all those galleries downtown and like, oh, they don’t want this. They’re al, blah, blah, and… And so when I chose to become an artist or an actor and I fell in love with theater, I kind of knew what I was up against. So it was a it was a I had a very different perspective, because when you have a parent that…

Kate: Who tries and then won’t.

Rainn: Yeah, who longs for a discovery and acceptance and and success but doesn’t want to put in effort because of fear and insecurity and trauma and whatnot. I knew, like, if I’m going to do this, I have to go all in. So it was about like, I’m going to New York City, I’m going to go to the best school, I’m gonna apprentice, I’m going to learn from the best. I’m going to put myself out there and, for better or worse, having had my father as a, as a kind of a reflection of another path that, that did kind of help me ,ultimately in my career.

Kate: Do you think there’s a… I don’t know how to ask this… It’s, because, I’ve seen people create like they just, the baby being born. Make something out of that love. The kind of like, furious hope that I can hear when you described your dad’s like prolific love of like sci-fi or art or but just the like the kind of gnawing, loving, making. Do you think there’s a… Is there always a grief in that? Or because I am, I have a very creative dad. My dad has made many things that have never seen the light of day. There’s been a lot of early typewriter in my life. And I’ve often wondered if creativity always has like a slightly tragic feeling because it, there’s so much hope in the making and then there’s sometimes just like, just hoping to also wanting to give it to somebody else to experience, too.

Rainn: Mmm. Well, I think that’s an awesome question. And I do believe that we, in seeking the divine, we seek to emulate the the powers and kind of facets of of the divine. And imagination and creativity is one of the great powers of God. In the Bahá’í by faith, God is often referred to as the fashioner. And I love that word, fashioner. That when we fashion whatever it is, in the in the creative impulse, we are emulating a divine spark. And so and there’s, there is an element of that in that art is service. If you make someone laugh, that’s a service. If you make something beautiful, that is a service. And this is, that is a divine impulse as well,, is is obviously to be of service. You can you can give someone soup if they’re hungry, tha’st service. But you can also make a beautiful poem that brings solace to someone’s heart and that’s also service. But my dad’s definitely was born out of trauma. So, and I think that’s okay. I think both can live side by side, but I think for him, art and creation was his way out of his traumatic childhood. For instance, he always just loved classical music. Like I said, he was always playing classical records and listening to classical, radio stations and whatnot. In fact, we lived as Bahá’í pioneers, I know you’re going to get to that, in, which is similar to missionary work. Although we like to think, Bahá’í like to think they’re not there to convert the natives, but more to kind of like work in the community. And we lived in Blue Fields, Nicaragua, on the Mosquito Coast for three years when I was when I was a kid and my dad brought his classical albums and he had a classical music radio show at the Blue Fields, Nicaragua radio station, which, believe it or not, did not play the kind of music that you would normally attribute to a radio station, an AM radio station in Blue Fields Nicaragua, mostly what they played there? Country music. Country music was huge and coastal Nicaragua in the 1970s.

Kate: Stop. His dad was like, y’all ready for this? That’s awesome.

Rainn: Chopin, y’all. So, but it’s interesting because one time I, then I asked him like, yeah, you know, why? Why do you love classical music so much? And I boiled down to this. This is cray-cray. His mom died under the most horrific circumstances. He was like 8 or 9 years old. She bequested to him her classical music collection. So for him as this kind of destitute Illinois farm boy with a stack of classical music records and I think a little, I imagine, a little turntable that was his his solace and his escape and it and he clung to that for his entire life.

Kate: That’s beautiful. And the way we kind of, like, bear witness to other people’s loves in our own loves, where we like, the I’ll carry it with you, I’ll carry it with me in my heart kind of feeling. I remember seeing my, my, my dad and his mom were so utterly different, and most of his young life had been marked by the tragedy of her early near-fatal tuberculosis, which meant that she was shuttered in a sanatorium for a long time, and he had to be put into foster care. And so there’s this, like, early…

Rainn: Okay that’s crazy, because that’s that’s the circumstances that my dad got…

Kate: Oh, that’s right! I totally, they have just.

Rainn: My dad’s mom had tuberculosis and was in the sanatarium, sanatorium.

Kate: And it’s out of, these places are tucked away because they expect them never to emerge, and so they’re kind of, they’re just like living museums of their own life while they’re still. And at the time, right, it was wildly incurable. And so they and so there’s just so much hopelessness and deep sadness and separation. And why isn’t my mom here when my mom should be here? And she should have gone to college. And so then he became the one who is obsessed with going to college to kind of carry this legacy of this beautifully, wildly intelligent person who never got to like, sort of be the flowering fruit of the whole thing. But I thought maybe the most touching thing I saw them do later in life when he wrote this absolutely impenetrable dissertation on Tudor history. And my and my grandma, who had like a huge…

Rainn: Nothing says love like an impenetrable history of the Tudors.

Kate: And it would like, remember those printers that was like neeeeee, gak gak gak and you had to, like, perforate off the side for about 40 years of your life.

Kate: Making a Happy Birthday banner was like a two-hour process. But I could see them trying then to kind of cross the huge bridge to each other, separated by so many things. And at that point, she’d had a lot of her lungs cut out because that had been “the cure,” to… But she was living in rural Saskatchewan and she, and she it took her, I think, about a year. But she embroidered a Elizabeth the First, like subject of his dissertation, ordered in freshwater pearls. Like. I think there’s just. So when I picture your dad in a radio station, Nicaragua, playing, like, making sure that the string quartets get their time on the air. There’s just something so wild about the way we like. Carry our loves for each other and then we need to express it. Like, you got to sing that song or embroider that.

Rainn: That’s beautiful. Yeah.

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Kate: I don’t think it would be possible for me to do justice to your Nicaraguan childhood, because if we were playing the game like, two truths and a lie. Like no, you can’t tell.

Rainn: You couldn’t tell.

Kate: So if you wouldn’t mind offering some seemingly contextless backed experiences in which you’re like, would you believe that this is, was my life at that time?

Rainn: Yeah. Well, my, stepmother almost died in quicksand. And…

Kate: I’m sorry, I had my full understanding face on, but…

Rainn: That threw you like. That got you.

Kate: I’m really sorry.

Rainn: But what a way to go, though. I mean, there’s part of me that wishes that that’s how she would have died. She’s in a senior home in Bainbridge Island, Washington now, and I’m glad she’s lived a full, rich life, don’t get me wrong. But what a way to go. I mean, can you imagine the stories I would be telling if my stepmom had actually died in quicksand?

Kate: No, it’s not the Princess Bride. It’s actually my real life…

Rainn: But yeah, one of her legs went all the way up to her hip, it was a very awkward thing. And then her other leg was out. And then some friendly Nicaraguans threw her a branch and like, pulled her out. But that was, that’s a minor story. That’s that it gets way, it gets way more intense than that. It was, you know, shaking the scorpions and spiders out of your shoes every morning. The amount of, my dad had malaria. I had amoebic dysentery, I think, can, is it possible, I’m not sure, I haven’t listened to your podcast, and I don’t know much about the Fetzer Institute…

Kate: You can say it.

Rainn: I had multiple worms come out of my butt. So that that was interesting. In fact, it’s one of the most, like, visceral memories of my childhood are very long worms emerging from my anus. So… God blesses us, everyone. But, what else can I say? I will say that on a on a lighter note, we, we had a pet sloth. And he, we kept him in a cage. And every night, slots are very strong and very slow. Every night he would open the bars of the cage and he would escape. And every morning my dad would go out knowing that he can’t have made it further than 30ft from the cage and circle the yard looking around the bushes. And sure enough, there would be the sloth and he would grab it, put it back in the cage and the bars back. And that says a lot about the human experience.

Kate: I was going to say, itt’s like a full Sysyphian drama every day.

Rainn: Every day.

Kate: To almost escape?

Rainn: Exactly! I’m almost. “I’m out… damn it!” Dragged back. Dragged back. Yeah.

Kate: Because I kind of have a theory, about, secret theory about you that I’m hoping you’ll be like. Yes, that’s very perceptive. Or no, that’s absolutely, unprovable. But your genuine weirdness, she said, respectfully.

Rainn: Hey, hey.

Kate: Respectfully, respectfully. I think there is something about being a curious adult that has to do with being able to accept the surreal and like when things just, you know, everyone expects a linear life and you’re just used to things coming into view fully through your peripheral. I just imagine that that has led to like a “Well, I suppose this is what’s happening” approach okay to life. I think there’s some spiritual magic in that.

Rainn: Hmm, okay, yeah. I would say that’s very astute. Yeah, 100%. I think, you know, by the time, you know, by the time I’m in American elementary school, you know, I’ve seen and been through a lot, and my family is extremely eccentric. And, so it’s kind of like, hey, anything goes. Yeah, yeah, it’s hard to be non-curious. It’s hard to be, un-curious having that background.

Kate: Yes. There is a thing too, about the way you describe your family growing up, about the outsider-ness and knowing that some parts of family life were like, deeply loving and other parts were missing.

Rainn: Mhmm. Yeah.

Kate: And that you’d have to find them. You’d have, it took you a while to find out that those were, those pieces were actually kind of essential. You’re like, oh no, I’m going to need, you know, intimacy connection. How long did you feel the kind of missing pieces were…?

Rainn: Until my late 40s. Yeah.

Kate: Aw.

Rainn: No, it’s true. I, because the big piece missing from my, from the childhood that we haven’t mentioned so far is that my mom left me and my dad when she was doing the plays where she painted her torso blue. She went and had an affair with a theater director and left. And I was about a year and a half, two years old. So, I didn’t really see her again until I was about 15. So, and my dad remarried right away. And so there were, there was a lot of like, there was a lot of those missing pieces. And the difficulty was, and I think that people of faith often really relate to this, which is, by the way, we’re all people of faith. We just maybe have faith in different things. So people of faith can relate to the fact that there was this kind of like, like this cognitive dissonance, but I would call it an emotional dissonance. Having to do with, the idea that we were Baha’is, members of the Baha’i Faith, that if you know anything about the Baha’i Faith, it’s just love and unity. Straight down the middle. It’s it’s love and unity. But in, in my home life with my dad and stepmom, because they really did not have a very, good marriage, or loving marriage. We talked about love and unity a lot and expressed it in a church community context, but I didn’t feel it at home. So there was this very odd disconnect between that. And also, I was not receiving the kind of emotional nourishment that I needed as, as a child. So and when I say, you know, late 40s, I really mean that. I really mean like it took me a lot of a lot of therapy and a lot of 12 step to kind of get to some kind of like adult healing of, of, of recognizing what it is that I, that I really needed. So it was it was a very peculiar kind of trauma to have, parents that were fighting, either fighting or not talking to each other, but then going, you know, a couple times a week to Baha’i gatherings where he would be singing, you know, Kumbaya-like songs. So that was, difficult to, to navigate.

Kate: Yeah, yeah. It sounds like the the vocational call toward creativity did a lot of good work in you. I was like, oh my gosh, you’re going to take the outside hardness that you feel you’re going to take off and you’re going to practice being really, really good at something in groups with other people who also love the vulnerability of public weirdness, which is how I, I guess I’m describing acting.

Rainn: That’s the, that’s theater kids. That’s theater nerds right there. Once I found yeah, I so in going back to the outsider-ness of it all, the. First of all, I’m just wired a little bit weird, so that’s okay.

Kate: I was a lamp for Halloween. It was like, what will you be? I was Socrates, then I was a lamp.

Rainn: Wow.

Kate: Then I was, yeah. Very, unpopular, which I still feel like is essential.

Rainn: I can’t even remember what my, what my Halloween costumes were, but that’s that’s great. That that reveals a lot. But the, one of the things that I remember doing in junior high school, and maybe we can all relate to this at some level, was like, I was so alien growing up in Nicaragua by family dad writing weird science fiction novels, and, and in a lot of nerdy pursuits, a lot of opera playing in our in our house. Yeah. I was on the chess team. I played the bassoon. I was in Model United Nations. I mean, my nerd cred is through the roof, but I would observe other kids and how they behaved and, and try and emulate that. So if you had a cool kid who was, like, coming up to someone else, like he was like, hey, Johnny, how’s it going? And slap him on the shoulder? Like, how’s your weekend, bro? And yeah, I would, I would observe that like, okay. And then I would go…

Kate: Subject A, approahces subject B.

Rainn: Then I would go up to my friend Mike like, hey Mike, how is your weekend, bro? You know, and I would literally try and emulate it. And so that didn’t help matters much. But that’s that’s how I felt. But then when I found the theater. Children of the theater, those are the ultimate outsiders. And, I really found, I found a home and, and a place to belong and and a great channel for for my for my creativity.

Kate: Yeah. Did you recognize it as a vocation? Like, not just a job, like, like a a calling that aligned you with a certain. I’m just curious about how you thought, like, did you think, oh, this internally matched my gifts, or at the time, did you think this is. There’s something transcend like transcendent going on?

Rainn: I was an evangelical experimental theater artist. So when I left the Baha’i Faith when I was about 20 and I left it hardcore, I was like, I didn’t want anything to do with God, religion, morality, any of that mumbo jumbo nonsense. I just wanted to be an artist in New York City. I was living my dream. But we had the same evangelical fervor about the theater that someone would have about any religious practice. So we really thought that we could change people’s minds and hearts if we did the right production of Miss Julie or The Three Sisters in the right church basement to the right 37 people, that we could literally change the course of their lives. And that was the the fervor and the mission with which we undertook the making of theater, which I think is the only way to make theater, because it certainly doesn’t pay. And but it was about, blowing people’s minds. It was about new forms. It was about making them laugh in unique ways. We would have the most intense conversations about the making of theater and its importance. And, you know, we I remember having a conversation once about, you know, late at night and a bunch of us theater artists, and we were pondering things and someone said, would you ever do…a commercial? And someone very seriously and very sonorously said, “I would… if it were for soy milk.” So we had, it was very serious.

Kate: That really sounds like academics. If the footnote apparatus isn’t 200 pages longer than the manuscript, is it really an academic book?

Rainn: Nice. Yeah, so that was, that was a great way to do that was a great way to do theater because it and it is and this is the human, this is the natural human impetus toward transcendence that we are we are wired. We are hard-wired to try and, transcend, to overcome, to be of service on some kind of higher level, to, to transform and to use all of our tools and our our DNA and our sinew to make, brave and beautiful and good things. And you can meet educators that are that way you can meet health practitioners that are that way you can, you know, meet people. And, you know, architects have to think in that way, like, I’m going to make a space that’s going to transform people when they enter that space, they’re going to see the world differently. We want to aspire toward that. And kind of everything in contemporary society wants to keep us back from thinking in that way. So I think it’s really important to think, think brave and think big and think transcendant.

Kate: Mhmm, yeah.

Rainn: I get some tepid snaps from the Fetzers. The aliens are snapping.

Kate: That really makes me laugh. Was it in your late 20s that you were… were you worried about, like, I think you described it as like death by despair, like the feeling that you all can feel vocationally alive and yet there are these sort of darker selves that want to kind of knot you and suck away your purpose.

Rainn: Yeah, I mean, I talk a lot about these days when I go to college campuses and whatnot. I talk a lot about mental health because I do think that the current mental health epidemic is, super deadly, and overwhelming. And I think people over 40 or 50 really don’t understand how deep and dark and deadly it is, it is, it is horrific. Dr. Varun Soni, who’s the chaplain at USC, who’s a dear friend of mine, he describes going three times a week to either funerals of kids that have committed suicide, or hospital beds of kids that have attempted suicide. This is really, really bad. And the the kids who are on the front lines of these mental health epidemics, one of the balms, one of the solutions that we most need, are spiritual tools and spiritual connection, which can give someone vision, mission and purpose and a sense of that seeking the sublime, the sacred, the transcendent. And there is a, there’s a longing and a hunger for that. So the, my way into that is that in my 20s, I experienced a lot of this stuff firsthand. I, realize now we didn’t have words for it in the, in the mid-nineties for a mental health epidemic, but I was having crippling anxiety attacks, for years. That would render me sometimes on the floor, like, shaking and sweating. And they would it would come on at really the most inopportune times. And I realized that I was using a lot of drugs and alcohol during that time to just try and medicate this anxiety, which is very common in the modern world as well. I wrestled with addiction, certainly depression, anxiety and alienation and, and loneliness and, and these are all elements of the diseases of despair. Not my phrase, you know, phrases that are used by, you know, positive psychologists to talk about what’s happening and to the youth today. And diseases of despair also can include, what’s happening on, on social media and the kind of like device, dopamine delivery devices, and platforms and apps and, and the isolation that those things engender. This is, an area of great interest to me. It’s something that I relate to because I’ve experienced it and something I think anyone who’s, you know, writing about spiritual topics has to it has to take into deep and profound consideration.

Kate: Yeah. Can you walk me back on that phrase you said, about when you talk to college kids about the path through, one of them was service and there are two others. It was really good. But it was it was, it was…

Rainn: When I just said now?  Vision, mission, purpose.

Kate: Vision, mission, purpose.

Rainn: I think it’s it’s just simply being a part of something larger than yourself. I think humans long to be a part of something larger than themselves. And everything in contemporary society is saying the self is the most important thing.

Kate: Yeah, you and I really do share a profound concern that there is a religious worldview that’s in competition with the one you’re describing, and that’s like a very narrow view of self-help. I’ve been writing a history of self-help and the kind of language of just aggressive individualism. And then most solutions to what you’re describing, they would counter with this like, well, more “me” time, there’s a lot of especially it’s like the religion of Instagram for women is a lot of aggressive bubble bath-ing into you just lock yourself in the bathroom for two minutes a day. Yeah. And, and you’ve solved most of the…

Rainn: Yeah, I have a big problem with self-care, with the with the idea of self-care, because the, you know, even the, if you look at the origins of positive psychology, which is an incredible movement and I’m, and we’ve learned so much from positive psychology, and yet it doesn’t seem to be helping us. And, that’s a weird dichotomy. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around.

Kate: The happiness industry, the history of positive thinking in this sort of rise of the happiness industry, and how it kind of bastardizes a lot of social science into five step, psychologist approved…

Rainn: Yeah, gratitude list, cold plunge…

Kate: Study. Yes. Yeah. Yes. A study of 12 people. Yeah. And I think like the terrible culprits will just try to sell as solutions things like I mean my favorite is the absolutely non-ironic book called The High Five Habit. In which apparently two hands meeting in space. To make a just a light sound is the solution. Then you do that daily. You look at, we’re, we’re doing it okay.

Rainn: We did it! Oh my God. Good night everybody. We got it all figured out.

Kate: Social scientists agree that a daily high five will… Because what we want is this like deep inner like a re weaving of the social fabric, as opposed to like, dry brushing.

Rainn: Yeah. I think there’s a lot to say on this. I was going back to the positive psychology movement. And, you know, Arthur Seligman is one of the founders of it, had an incredible study early on. And people need to understand that this movement, which started in the 90s, is, is really, exciting and important because psychology was always about how screwed up we are and how neurotic we are, and how much trauma we’ve experienced and how we got that way. And for the first time, people were like, well, let’s study what works, let’s study what makes people happier and what makes them more successful. And I’m all for that. And, you know, Seligman had a you know, had one of his earliest classes all take a, a test for to, of of their happiness to get a baseline. And then one weekend, he told the kids to go out and do everything that they think is going to make them happier and come in and share about it. And some kids, like, hooked up and other kids got wasted. Kids went to Atlantic City, other kids like went on a shopping spree, blah blah blah. They took the happiness test again. And of course guess what? Their happiness scores were lower. Then he had another weekend was like go do something for some someone else. Go be of service. Whether it’s call your sick aunt or visit a friend is hurting, or hold the door open at a Starbucks or whatever it is, and they took the test again. And guess what? Their scores were higher. So, you know, scientists have understood that it’s by getting out of oneself, actually, that we find greater well-being. And I think that what has happened is because we live in such a consumerist, capitalist society that we want, an immediate payback, for our investment. Right. So spirituality has become kind of codified into something that will really simply relieve my anxiety and bring me, you know, 8% more serenity on a daily basis. So you talked about, like, if I read this Rumi poem on Instagram and I take that hardcore bubble bath and I do my yoga class, then I will be 8% less anxious, in my day. And so I’ve paid my money, I’ve invested my time, and I have gotten this payback of 8% greater serenity. And that way of thinking is corrupt, profoundly, at its core. So there’s nothing wrong with seeking some peace in your life. And I do it. You do it. I’m sure you know my prayer and meditation practice connecting with nature, even cold plunges and gratitude lists, which I do on an almost daily basis. There’s nothing wrong with these things as long as they’re in the service to something greater. And I think that we, you know, culturally, part of what a spiritual revolution means is really thinking outside of the box on kind of like how we do most everything, how systems work. So we have a system of seeking to obtain spiritual enlightenment or peace or centeredness or serenity. And it’s, it works completely within, within the bounds of consumerism.

Kate: I totally agree. Yeah. It’s like, it’s wild how instrumentalist all the language sounds. I mean, it really is.

Rainn: I don’t know what instrumentalist means.

Kate: It means you make everything—

Rainn: I’m a basoonist, is that anything…?

Kate: You do know the power of an instrument, yes.

Rainn: That’s what she said. That’s the first “that’s what she said” joke ever told in the Fetzer Institute. Boom. Mic Drop. Huge mic drop.

Kate: The idea that everything. I mean, it just, it’s a version of American pragmatism where everything has to be for something. So exactly what you’re describing about, like why it’s got this, like why it’s just another version of a language of why it’s so corrupt is because we’ve taken a thing that is a that is good for its own sake. Beauty doesn’t need to be proven as being instrumentalist for… truth-telling, friendship. It shouldn’t have to be, “Social scientists agree that…” We make everything into a tool, and so therefore everything as some kind of has a use or an exchange. And then it makes, it makes all the beautiful things part of a wellness morning routine or a story about us trying to get what we deserve. And I, I really like, psychologist Lisa DaMour is so lovely. She writes about adolescent mental health. I think you’d really like her. She. The first chunk of her book is like, can we just talk about some of the limits of our obsession with positivity, especially when it relates to the mental health of adolescents? She makes two, I thought, great points. One is that mental health is not trying to crowd all the emotions into our cultural obsession with like, happiness, but it’s having the appropriate emotion at the appropriate time. So in some cases it is, a terrible thing happens, your, the appropriate emotion is sadness.

Rainn: Feel terrible emotions. Yeah.

Kate: And like as it but as opposed to just crowding on one sort of end to the swimming pool and the other is in order to like guide adolescents through the wide the ups and downs. She’s like, they’re the, the, the, the fastest way to create like more. agility is just service. Is just putting them, so your point about like just, make them part of something that’s bigger than themselves. And there’s like a natural, I think of it like those really weighted blankets where you’re just like, oh, yeah, I know it’s not about me. It’s fine. But it is wild how much service is like, it’s not a sexy topic right now. I’m like, I’m excited for you as you try to talk people into it.

Rainn: Yeah. Wish me luck.

Kate: They’re not, they’re not loving it.

Rainn: Yeah. I believe that the solution to the youth mental health crisis is has been around since the late 70s.

Kate: Tell me.

Rainn: And its name is Dungeons and Dragons, because when you play D&D, you’re in a group of people without devices, shoulder-to-shoulder, snacks, a lot of jocularity, a lot of high fives. You’re in service to something greater. You’re taking your little retinue of elves and dwarves and magic users and wizards and monks, and you’re seeking the treasure, and you’re on a mission. You’ve got to work together. There’s, there’s basically everything that one used to find in a religion one can find, in a group of, kids playing Dungeons and Dragons. And, it’s, when I know, like, my son is doing better when he’s playing a lot of D&D and like, okay, all right, all right, you’re on the right path.

Kate: Weekend of orc slaying is a go.

Rainn: Yeah, yeah.

Kate: I like how into virtues you are because you’re very… Because that’s a, I think it’s a very good argument to say like, how do we know that what we’re doing, like love is, is real love and like, because it produces these beautiful qualities like, as opposed to I became more emotionally regulated by myself. So I love that you also are like, no, no. There’s like, we do have great language for this, like patience, forbearance, joy.

Rainn: And I would say encouragement is maybe the yeah, the most pure service that we can offer another person. You know, I mean, I think that love love is interesting as a concept, but I think also culturally we I think we struggle to understand, believe it or not, I think we struggle to understand what love is because we only have one English language word for love and so many other languages I hear. I don’t know that Sanskrit has like 19 words for love. And you know, I love, you know, the New York Knicks. And I love my wife. And I love God, and I love skateboarding videos from the 70s. But that’s not, you know what I mean? Like, yeah, that’s not really love. And, so love isn’t a feeling in the chest. Love is an action, it’s only borne out in action. It doesn’t even really matter what what the internal impulse is for that action. But encouragement of another person, I think, is, is one of the most sincere and pure acts of love.

Kate: Yeah. Who do you think or what do you think we would all be like if we did have a spiritual revolution? What are things that you would, like, you’d look around and you’d see what?

Rainn: Well, I think that, at the core of any spiritual revolution is, compassion. And I talk about in Soul Boom, what would it be like to invent a compassion machine where you can go into the machine and it’s wired to your brain, it looks like an MRI machine or some like that. And in it, you’re immediately put in the circumstances of an immigrant at the border or an Afghani, you know, sheep herder or a Vietnamese fisherman trying to get by. Whatever it is, the circumstances, someone wildly different than yourself, and you enter their world and you see and feel the world exactly as they do, because that would be the ultimate way to kind of like foster compassion. So with deep compassion comes sacrifice, personal sacrifice. So, when we have a family member who’s sick, we have incredibly deep compassion for that family member. We’ll quit our jobs to take care of them. Right? We’ll do anything. We’ll, we’ll will drain our bank accounts, you know, because we love them so much. But as too often happens, we stop that apparatus at the boundaries of family. So increasing the, how we define family, to, and then to increase it, not just to our tribe, not just to kind of like fellow Anabaptists who live in Raleigh-Durham, you know, but but to to go, you know, to people with different skin colors who, who speak different languages and who, maybe think about the world in a different way politically than we do to ever-increasing kind of universality of compassion, where we drain our bank accounts and sacrifice our time, our energy, and especially our comfort. We sacrifice those bubble baths, for the good of someone else. So what does that look like? It looks like any great religious spiritual movement, like you look at the early Christian movement of the first 300 years and the the writers of the time were outraged and perplexed that there were these people that were Sumerians and Romans and and they were, you know, centurions and they were former slaves and former prostitutes. And they were not only helping each other, they were helping other people. If there was a flood or an earthquake, they were sacrificing. This may be the first time in human history that there was a group of people sacrificing of their time, attention and comfort for the good of someone else, just out of love and out of altruism. And so we’ve done it before, right? And there have been many cases of this, but I would say that’s what a world looks like where, you know, you’re you’re consistently, culturally and socially, sacrificing for the good, for the good of, of the other and for the good of, of community.

Kate: Rainn Wilson. Thank you.

Rainn: Hey, alright, thank you.

Kate: Look, I know that we’re living in a world and in an age that is replete with things that make us feel despair the rising mental health crisis, the seemingly intractable geopolitical crises, political seasons that make you sick to your heart and your stomach when you’re arguing with family and friends. We are juggling problems at home, in our families and in our lives. So yes, there is so much to despair all around us. And also, I love what Rainn said about how we are hard-wired to transcend, to make brave, beautiful, creative things in the service of others. The antidote to so much despair is sometimes just making ourselves useful. And I know that I don’t have to remind you of that. Like there is no high horse here, you beautiful listener. You’re the one in the hard job, or in the volunteering position, or in a caregiving role, or you’re that friend that people call to ask you to care about other people every day. And, I just have to say, as someone who has met so many of you, you do it really beautifully, I might add. But when you’re feeling a bit low, remember that we are building something brave and beautiful and transcendent together. One small, faithful act of hope at a time. Here is a blessing, then from my book, Have a Beautiful, Terrible Day that invites us to take a step back from the person, that wellness machine that our culture is trying to make us. So let me just bless the real you instead.

Kate: God, I am told to invest in myself. You’re worth it. I should find myself in the market that owns me. If you check my billing statements, I am a monthly subscription for white noise and sleep stories and chewable melatonin. I am a standing grocery order for dark roast fairtrade beans and dry, full-bodied Spanish reds. And on a customer service report somewhere read aloud in an air-conditioned boardroom. I represent the value of unlimited digital access to the New York Times and Wordle, mostly Wordle. But Lord, this is not the creation story of gardens and mud made flesh, and life breathed into one-click ordering. Unmake me, unmake me, unmake me. Put me to sleep. Steal another rib and let me awake to all things astonishingly unnamed and unknown by the world I made in affordable monthly installments.

Kate: All right, my darlings. May we be unmade and remade all over again today and in the week to come. A big thank you to all the people who let me get to do this are incredible partners who make Everything Happens, our incredible partners who really make everything happen. Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School. Thank you so much. And a massive shout out to the Fetzer Institute for making today’s conversation possible. I had such a lovely time with you. This podcast is a group project full of people I adore Jess Richie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Iris Greene, Hope Anderson, Kristen Balzer, Jeb Burt, Sammie Filippi, and Katherine Smith. I love you guys and I love doing this with you. And we do it because we’re kind of obsessed with you, listeners. Yes, you, looking into your local D&D club now, questioning the usefulness of cold plunging. Bless you. You are our absolute favorite and we are so grateful to get to make useful things for you and let us know who you want to hear from this season. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. These things matter so much. Just take a few seconds. Or call us and leave us a voicemail at (919) 322-8731. All right, darlings, if you are Canadian, you’re going to love next week I am speaking to the inimitable Chantal Kreviazuk on the podcast. I can’t even believe it. My Winnipeg self, my heart is bursting. And until then, this is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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